The Hidden Depths of Genre

Monday, June 15, 2009, 11:29 PM

This post was inspired by two things. One of them was this very snotty and condescending piece at Esquire magazine's website, which masquerades as a review. Jason Pinter did a better job of critiquing this critique with his own much more intelligent piece.

The other was watching the movie Cloverfield over the weekend. On the surface, Cloverfield seems the very model of an Event Movie, a film driven more by hype and special effects than plot, dialogue or meaningful characterisation. A typical monster movie, in other words, albeit set apart from the crowd by the jerky camcorder photography (which transfers to the Blu-Ray format better than you might think). If we take Cloverfield at face value, then it is a brilliant example of its kind. It's breathlessly paced, lean as a 100-metre sprinter, and has all the crash-bang-wallop and scares you could want in its ninety minute duration.

But there's so much more to Cloverfield than the visceral spectacle of a monster levelling skyscrapers. While characterisation and real dialogue aren't a big part of the movie, and given its format and streamlined running time they aren't overly missed, it is certainly more than throwaway popcorn fare.

To anyone with half a brain, the movie's underlying theme is hardly subtle. But then neither was 9/11, the horrific event this film represents. Some scenes are so reminiscent of actual footage from 9/11 they must have been deeply disturbing for anyone who was there that day. Take, for instance, the scene where a group of people take refuge inside a drug store, sealing the doors just in time as a wall of dust and debris stampedes past the windows.

An obvious influence on Cloverfield comes from the other side of the world. The makers of this movie have openly stated it is an homage to Godzilla, a cinematic icon that has never successfully transferred to Western movies. But looking at the cultural context of Godzilla in Japan's history, there is a darker comparison. As Cloverfield acts as an analogy for 9/11, Godzilla is symbolic of Japan's coming to terms with the atomic bombs detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Both the first Godzilla and Cloverfield portray monstrous entities laying waste to entire cities less than a decade after both the respective countries suffered terrible attacks that were unimaginable before they occurred. Thus, what seems the most absurd of cinematic genres - the monster movie - is used to explore a horror that can't be expressed in a more literal, realistic way.

(A quick note before anyone points it out - the Cloverfield and Godzilla analogies are well worn, but I wanted to use them as known examples.)

And horror, as a genre, has always been used to explore more serious themes, from the 19th Century fear of scientific progress (Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) to the pain of a developing adolescent sexuality (The Exorcist, Let the Right One In). Genre fiction, whether that be crime, horror, science fiction, romance, whatever, is perfectly capable of tackling themes that more literary work will struggle with.

In fact, the best genre fiction does exactly that; it shows us things that would be too difficult to contemplate in any other context. Remember that next time you feel belittled by some supercilious literary type who wouldn't stoop to such trash as genre fiction.

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Blogger Josephine Damian said...

Stu, those literary types are just jealous cause the genre writers make all the money.

Laugh all the way to the bank, I say (especially if you're a "cack-handed Hollywood screenwriter" as Dec Burke likes to call us).

Critical acclaim is nice, but it don't pay the rent.

12:22 AM  
Blogger jjdebenedictis said...

In Story by Robert McKee (which I know you're not wild about), he notes that we watch movies/read books to see a reflection of ourselves there--characters and a story we can empathize with. Then he went on to say the only reason to set a story in the past is to tackle a current issue that is too painful for most people to deal with.

When I read that, I remember thinking that's the only really good reason to set a story in an alternate reality, too. In other words, all science fiction and fantasy should aspire to do this.

I loved Cloverfield, by the way, and I agree it must have been painful for people who were near or in Manhattan on 9/11 to watch.

12:48 AM  
Blogger sex scenes at starbucks said...

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12:59 AM  
Blogger sex scenes at starbucks said...

I don't know that I could watch it--that day and the Oklahoma City bombing both hold very painful memories for me.

On the other hand, fantasy often takes off when times are tough or we're at war or experiencing similar difficulties because most fantasy fiction represents, at its heart, hope. In that, the tropier the better.

Serious science fiction has traditionally been "warning fiction", proposing the dire results of living our lives as we currently do.

But mostly genre fiction is about PEOPLE and therein lies its charm and draw.

1:01 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

Hear, hear! I'm a big believer in genre fiction as outsider art; at its best, it holds a mirror up to the world in a way that literary fiction doesn't dare. And at its worst, well, at least there's still explosions.

3:46 AM  
Blogger Declan Burke said...

Just back from Esquire-land ... Don't know that the guy was bashing genre fiction, per se, more taking a pop at Baldacci, Koontz and Coben ... and, without having read any of those chaps, it's worth remembering John Connolly's maxim: "95% of crime fiction is shit. Then again, 95% of everything is shit."

I read a lot of crime fiction novels. Some of them are rubbish, some are very good. Most are pretty average.

Being a genre writer doesn't excuse an author from observing the principles of good writing, the first and most important of which is to gain and keep his readers' attention.

After that, it's all about opinions.

Cheers, Dec

10:13 AM  
Blogger sex scenes at starbucks said...

Ok I went and actually read them now. The drugs for the ankle were holding me back yesterday.

I can't stand Koontz either, so I guess on that point I agree with the guy in Esquire. Haven't read the others.

And there was an ad featuring a half-nekkid chick right next to his article, which really made me laugh.

5:01 PM  
Blogger Stuart Neville said...

Dec and Betsy - It was more the dismissiveness of the review, if it can be called such, that bothered me. I have my doubts as to whether the critic actually read the books. And Betsy, that's exactly what Jason Pinter parodied: a critic pontificating on how these books were beneath him when the magazine's main selling point seems to be "Look! Boobies!"

10:01 PM  

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